Monday, December 24, 2012

Why I ride

Note: This post was originally written in 2011 and was included in my other (only) blog at the time I only went out for a walk. At that time, I was trying to keep all of my blogging in one place. I've since decided that cycling belongs here in my newly-created cycling blog and that my older blog will remain reserved for subjects related to natural history.

I started riding bicycles as a kid. Most people get their start in cycling with that first Christmas or birthday present. My first bike was a red Schwinn Stingray with a red banana seat and ape-hanger handlebars. I think I was probably about seven or eight when I got that first bike as a birthday present. I can still vividly remember my dad teaching me how to ride on the street in front of our house. I can even remember the joy, that heady feeling when I realized that I was pedaling along on my own without my dad running along behind me holding onto the seat. I rode that bike all over the neighborhood with my brother and our friends. We pretended we were riding motorcycles, and when we weren't riding we all sat on our bikes in a big circle in the shady street and talked about whatever 10 year old kids talked about back in the 70's.

When I was older I received my second bike, a Sears 10 speed bike. I had graduated from a kid's bike to an adult's bike. Again, I rode that bike practically everywhere. As a teenager, I took it to ride downtown to the hobby shop, or out to the mall with friends. Eventually, I even rode that bike to junior college a few times, but eventually gave up because it was hard, sweaty work. As most kids in high school, I wanted my own car. We live in a country that values automobiles as a badge of freedom. Those who use mass transit or ride bikes anywhere are somehow less fortunate and are to be pitied. I was of the same mindset and I disdained my bicycle, choosing to borrow mom and dad's car whenever I could or simply taking the bus to school or work. When I finally bought my first car in 1988, I never looked back. I had forsaken bicycling forever, or so I thought.

Fast forward a few years. In my last two years of college I had developed an interest in weight lifting, egged on by my roommates, several of whom were muscle-heads. After graduation, I sought out gyms and found them to be far too expensive. Whilst I had been away at college, my older brother had taken to riding my old Sears 10 speed. He had since outgrown using my bike and had purchased his own used Fuji 10 speed. His "new" bike was far closer to something a professional racer would ride than my heavy, poorly specced department store bike. Somehow my brother had become enamored of cycling and had begun to develop into an appreciator of all things "velo." I figured that if I couldn't afford a gym membership at least my leg muscles could stay toned riding a bike. So, I purchased a spiffy new Vetta helmet from a Bike Nashbar catalog and began riding in earnest.

Those first post-college rides on my old 10 speed took me farther afield than I had ever ridden before. Rides stretched from five to ten to twenty miles. I bought a pair of bottle cages and attached them to my bicycle frame with plumbing hose clamps since my bike did not have braze-ons for attaching bottles or pumps. A few months later my summer was winding to a close and I had scored my first real "career" job fresh out of college. I began work as a newspaper reporter and photographer in a little town called Chillicothe on the Illinois River, north of Peoria. I took my bicycle with me rode on my evenings and weekends. I met some fellow cyclists and began regularly riding a rails-to-trails path called the Rock Island Trail on my weekend. I would get up and drive my car to Alta, Illinois which was where the trailhead for the Rock Island Trail was. Those early Saturday morning rides with friends would take us through wide open rolling farmland and along a mostly shaded woodlands on a bed of crushed limestone following the path of a long defunct railroad. Eventually we'd arrive in Dunlap where we'd have a hearty breakfast at a little restaurant. With our bellies full of pancakes, eggs, and bacon we'd head back.

I didn't realize it then, but I had become a cyclist. I was no longer merely someone who rode a bike just for exercise or for simple transportation. I had become someone who rode a bike for the sheer pleasure of it. I had begun to pore over catalogs of bike accessories. I hungered for the next Bike Nashbar catalog or Colorado Cyclist. I read Bicycling magazine, and I read Greg LeMond's Complete Book of Bicycling. I rode every chance I got and soon I craved a new bicycle. My first bike purchase that I made myself was a used Trek Antelope 800 mountain bike bought at a bike shop in Peoria. I had graduated from the world of heavy steel department store bikes into the world of cro-moly frames, gel seats, and Shimano index shifting and Biopace chainrings. Soon, my cycling world expanded beyond the roadways and onto trails. I became interested more in mountain biking and soon my heavy Trek Antelope was replaced by a sleek aluminum-framed Trek 7000 mountain bike. I still hit the roads but more often than not my riding was on trails.

Over the next few years I migrated to Georgia and my stable of bikes constantly changed. I added a classic early 80's Raleigh Super Course road bike to my stable and began riding both on the road and on trails. At one point I even began shaving my legs. My love affair with cycling was all-consuming. I couldn't wait to get home from work so I could grab my mountain bike and hit some trails. When I went back to school for a second degree I took my bikes with me and I continued to bike to class, the coffee shops to study, and I even rode with the university cycling team where members would try to get me to join the team and race with them. Alas, I became more serious about my studies and my cycling soon began to suffer. I rode very little during my last few years in Georgia. I followed my then fiance, now wife back to Illinois when she went to Chicago for grad school. Living in the big city, the closest mountain biking was nearly an hour drive south of Chicago in an area called Palos Hills. The mountain biking was tame in comparison to what I had experienced in Georgia and the heavy traffic on Chicago streets was more intimidating than anything I'd experienced riding in rural Illinois or Georgia.

I eventually parted out my old Raleigh to buy a new Scattante (Italian for "Zippy"), flat-bar road bike from Performance Bike. I had grandiose dreams of commuting to work by bike and getting some sorely needed exercise in the process. When I purchased that new bike in late summer of 2007 I had big intentions. Over the next three years I rode that bike about as many times as I could count on my fingers and toes. Maybe I just wasn't a cyclist anymore. A year-round cycle commuting co-worker would take verbal jabs at me for not riding my bike more, let alone riding it to work. It seemed a sorry state to him that someone like myself, someone so once enamored of cycling that I even raced my mountain bike in several races one summer, would now seemingly forsake the joy of cycling. So, it was in the Spring of this year that I finally began to return to cycling. In a bid to get in better physical shape and lose the pounds accumulated over several years of sedentary living, my wife and I made a pact to begin exercising regularly. We bought a treadmill for walking indoors during winter and a rowing machine as well. I struggled with the monotony of exercising indoors and so when the bleak winter finally broke into a cool Spring, I took my bicycle out of storage and resolved to begin riding it again.

I began riding almost every day after work. I would jump onto the Lakefront Path that parallels the shoreline of Lake Michigan for over 15 miles running from the south of Chicago to the northern end. I would ride as far as I could for half an hour then I would turn around and ride home. I began tweaking my position on the bike. I changed the saddle height, I bought new tires. I read forums and asked questions, I started buying new clothes and new accessories. I set a goal of riding a century, 100 miles in one day, by September. Eventually I changed my handlebar from a flat bar to a road bike drop bar and added bar end shifters and new brake levers. I'd begun to feel some of what I had felt all those years ago. I was beginning to enjoy cycling for the sake of cycling. When I installed my new drop bar and rode out the first time I pumped the pedals a few times out of the saddle. A phrase of longtime Tour De France commentator Phil Liggett came to mind - I was "dancing on the pedals." It was then that I realized I had recaptured my love of cycling.

When I rode the century ride I knew I just wasn't quite in good enough shape to ride a full 100 miles. Instead I rode the 75 mile option. It rained almost all day long. My rain jacket leaked. I was wet and cold most of the day. I started riding late in the morning and missed many of the other riders, so I ended up riding most of the distance by myself. However, through the whole day of riding I felt elated. I had ridden double the longest distance I'd ever gone in all my years of cycling. The more miles I ride the more I enjoy cycling. Leaving work on my bike I often make it home faster than I would had I been driving my car. I'm exercising more than I have in over a decade and I'm saving money by not driving my car as much. My wife and I have begun planning to take cycling tours of interesting places around the country. Every day that I ride my bike to work or just take a joy ride around the city, I feel like I'm accomplishing something. The motive power comes from me. It's my legs pumping to move the pedals. When I see cars starting and stopping in traffic as I ride along next to them on the path, I experience a little smug thrill, proud that I'm not sitting there in my car, creeping forward, wasting gas, looking at my watch and hoping that an accident or a stalled car doesn't make me late to work.

Every day I ride my bike makes me more healthy and makes me feel free. The bicycle is an amazing efficient machine that has remained largely unchanged for over 100 years. I can ride a bike that is little different in design and concept from what Lance Armstrong rode to win his seven Tours De France. It's almost indescribable. There is something inherently uplifting and joyous about riding a bike. It frees you from the confines of an automobile. You're at one with your environment. You can hear the birds and insects calling, feel the wind in your face, feel the sun warming you on a cool Fall morning. As I commute into work, I can look out over Lake Michigan and see the sun rising as maybe a lone sailboat plies the waves. I see geese and ducks, I ride past the restored prairies, and feel the hum of the road beneath my tires. This is why I ride.

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